Panning for fast moving subjects

Technique

There are many techniques in photography that you have to learn to help you improve, some are more useful than others and you’ll find yourself using them more and more when you perfect them.

One such technique is called ‘panning’. This is the technique of moving the camera with the subject, taking the shot during the motion and then continuing the motion in one smooth action. This technique is useful for sports photography, wildlife photography, photography at air shows, basically anywhere the subject moves quickly.

It takes some practise though and geting the balance right between shutter speed and your movement is not easy. If you have the shutter speed too slow then no matter how well you pan the camera, you won’t get a sharp image. If you have the shutter speed too fast then you won’t get the creative results that panning can give you.

So let’s look at some examples. I’m lucky enough to live close to Oulton Park, which is a motor racing circuit in Cheshire in the UK, and there are lots of positions around the track where panning is a massive help to getting better images. So first of all we’ll look at the sort of picture that most people will get. They will be using a fast shutter speed which will freeze everything to get a sharp picture throughout.

Oulton Park-3

In some cases, this is obviously a desirable effect, but if you look at the image you can see there are a lot of distractions in the background where the image is fairly sharp all the way through it and that, to me at least, detracts from the image. You’ll also see that the wheels of the racing car look like they are not moving so in effect, this car could have been parked on the track. The main issue to me is there is no sense of speed. Motorsport is a fast sport, so for the photographer capturing still images, getting a sense of speed into the image tells more of a story.

So let’s bring in panning. When you pan the camera, there are a few other things you need to bear in mind. You need to focus on the moving subject at all times. For manual focus this is a bit tricky, so let’s not make it hard for ourselves and use the auto focus of the camera. However, using the auto focus on the standard setting will also cause you problems because as soon as you push your finger half way down on the shutter release, the auto focus will set itself on that spot so when the subject moves, chances are it will be out of focus. What you need to make sure is that your camera is set to continuous focus. Now, different manufacturers might call this a variety of names, but what it means is that the camera will detect what it things is moving in the frame and will continuously adjust the focus to make sure that the subject that is moving stays in focus. Depending on what camera you have will depend how fast this happens, but most reasonable cameras will have this feature.

OK, so we’ve got our fast moving subject, we’ve got our camera set on continuous focus so let’s get the subject framed up ready to take the shot. But hold on, you think you are going to get the shot on the first attempt? I doubt it, so let’s make sure we have done a few practise pans first.

If you have got to move your body to pan the camera, make sure you are comfortable doing so. Make sure you don’t unbalance yourself by twisting your body. Also make sure that you aren’t going to bump into anything or anyone when you pan the camera. The last thing you want to do is pan quickly and whack your head, or your camera, on a tree or another spectator standing next to you. So have a few practise pans. You might look a bit of a wally doing it with nothing to take a shot of, but it will help you get a better shot.

OK, now we are ready to give it a try. However, if your camera is still set on a really fast shutter speed then you aren’t going to see much difference to the above shot, so let’s slow the shutter speed down. This is what takes a bit of practise so maybe start with something like 1/125 of a second. That’s fast enough to still get a sharp image, but hopefully slow enough to get a bit of blur in the background to give the image a sense of speed and the also the additional benefit of blurring out some of the distractions in the background.

So, pick out your subject well in advance. Frame the shot and press the shutter release half way down to set the camera up and get the camera focussing. Now keep your finger pressed half way down and follow the subject with your camera and when you think you are ready to take the shot, press the shutter all the way down to take the shot. But here is the important point, keep moving and panning the camera after you take the shot. This will mean you get a nice smooth motion and if you’ve got it right you’ll get the important bits of the subject sharp but you’ll also get motion blur in the right places too that will give the whole image a bit more of a dynamic look.

Oulton Park-4

So that was the shot I got by using the panning technique. I left a little more in the frame than I would normally do just to illustrate the technique but you can see that the background has that motion blur, the wheels don’t look like they are stationary, the background is less distracting and the whole picture has, I think, a little more to it than a totally sharp image like the one at the top of the article.

This does take practise though, don’t expect to master it first time. Believe me, I’ve got lots of shots that get deleted because I’ve messed up the panning motion or haven’t got the balance right between shutter speed and moving the camera. So don’t be disheartened, put lots of practise in and you’ll get some great results.

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